President Barack Obama made the well-being of Native American children a theme during his recent visit to the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North Dakota, but two child welfare activists say the federal government has failed to protect those children.
"I understand that the Lakota word for 'children' — 'wakanyeja' — comes from the word 'wakan' — 'sacred,'" Obama told the attendees of a pow-wow event in Cannon Ball on Friday. "That's what young people are — they're sacred. They're sacred to your families and they're sacred to your tribe, and they're sacred to this nation."
But Betty Jo Krenz, a former employee of the Spirit Lake Tribe near Devils Lake in North Dakota, says the federal government is turning its back on Native American children.
"It's a bad place," Krenz says of the state's reservations. "It's a scary place to live. For some reason our government has chosen to overlook that."
The Spirit Lake reservation has seen numerous reports of child abuse and deaths over the past two years, and many accuse the tribe and the federal government of failing to protect children there.
"The recurring deaths and child abuse cases on Spirit Lake are unacceptable," N.D. Rep. Kevin Cramer told the Jamestown Sun. "Clearly the current system is failing our children."
Krenz was invited by Cramer, a Republican, to address a hearing of the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian Affairs later this month. She says rather than bring Obama to North Dakota, the federal government should have paid to bring Native American children to testify before Congress.
"[Sen.] Heidi Heitkamp wants to show Obama and Michelle this wonderful and beautiful show, and granted, these pow-wows are wonderful, but it would have been a much better way to spend money to take a plane-load of kids from around the country and let them go testify before this committee instead of just us and a few others," she said.
Asked if she believed Obama's visit would make a difference in protecting Native American children, Krenz said "absolutely not."
"This is their way of saying, 'Hey, look at what we plan on doing for you guys.' All they get are promises, and in the end the kids pay the price," Krenz said. "I get emails daily from people begging for help on the reservation, but what can I do?"
Elizabeth Morris, chairwoman of the Christian Alliance for Indian Child Welfare, says the federal government has been lax in protecting children in Native American communities.
"We can see it in the microcosm of Spirit Lake," she said. "We can see the children abused. We can see the federal government turn its back on it."
Of Obama's visit to Standing Rock, Morris said it's "totally a photo-op."
"A photo-op for President Obama and Sen. Heitkamp," said Morris. "[Heitkamp's] supposed bill to help tribal people and help tribal government is really just help for tribal government. It's not help for tribal people."
Morris says Obama was unlikely to have any candid discussions with tribal members during his visit to North Dakota. "He's not going to be talking to anyone the tribal leaders disapprove of, you can be sure of that," she said.
Heitkamp, a Democrat, introduced a bill in the Senate to create a federal Commission on Native Children. It received the unanimous approval of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and awaits a vote by the full Senate.
The Indian Affairs Subcommittee will hold its hearing, "Child Protection & the Justice System on the Spirit Lake Indian Reservation," at 2 p.m. on June 24.
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